COSMIC VIRTUE – PART XIII – COSMOLOGY

“… an actual change of the human world, the conquest of space or whatever we may wish to call it, is achieved only when manned space carriers are shot into the universe, so that man himself can go where up to now only human imagination and its power of abstraction, or human ingenuity and its power of fabrication, could reach.” – Hannah Arendt.

Having disentangled, at least in part, the difference between philosophical and scientific cosmology last time, we now examine the ethical issues for humanity in general and ourselves as individuals with respect to it. It seems there are two types – that of action and that of contemplation. Today and next time we will consider the various ethical nuances of activities at the level of the cosmos. These fall into four broad categories: (1) the study of the physical space, (2) the search for extra-terrestrial life especially intelligent life, (3) the exploration of space, and (4) the moral dilemma of application of societal resources for scientific advances versus immediate human needs.

Detailed study of the physical universe is the arena of the trained scientist, an occupation seems to meet all the requirements of a virtuous activity as long as the scientist has integrity and shares his or her findings with the community at large. The amateur astronomer (‘citizen scientist’) can offer significant assistance to the specialist as for example in composite photographs of celestial bodies as seen on the NASA website (https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/chandra/multimedia/galaxy-quartet.html). Extra eyeballs aided by quality telescopes have identified new comets, nebulae, and at least twice seen celestial bodies slamming into Jupiter and leaving scars. For the less versed, the hobby of astronomy and purchase of a telescope or even binoculars literally ‘opens ones eyes’ to the magnificence of the heavens.

In two earlier posts I examined the philosophical implications of the ongoing search for life on other worlds.1 The ethical position seems to me to be this: we should seek truth when possible, and the truth about whether life on Earth is unique or not is an important one. If intelligent life is found outside our solar system, it is incumbent on us to investigate it, learn from it, reach out to it, and prepare for future contact. If intelligence is a valuable development of the unfolding universe, as it appears to be, then inter-communication between intelligent life forms may potentiate that value. Alternatively if extra-terrestrial life and intelligence cannot be found, the utter importance of preserving terrestrial species in general and Homo sapiens in particular is heightened.

(continued next post)

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1See posts on this site, Current Reading: We Are Not Alone, dated 3/29/2019 and 4/1/2019.

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 COSMIC VIRTUE – PART XII – COSMOLOGY

“None knows whence creation arose:

And whether he has or has not made it;

He who surveys it from the lofty skies,

Only he knows – or perhaps he knows not.”

-The Rig Veda, X. 129

 

 

On the one hand cosmic virtue refers to understanding the nature and working of the world and the universe, meaning science in general, which has been the subject of the last six installments. On the other it refers to our disposition and inclination to the cosmos itself and the discipline of cosmology. On first glance, there can be no possible ethical relationship to the cosmos incumbent on us beyond our dealings with Nature and Earth. However I will propose there is a reflexive obligation on humanity and on oneself to connect oneself and one’s life with the cosmos, an outlook Neil de Grasse Tyson calls the ‘cosmic perspective.’ This is the subject of the current and the ensuing posts.

The word cosmos comes from the ancient Greek word, kosmos, meaning the world or universe, particularly as ordered by destiny or fate. Classical Greeks such as Plato and Aristotle added an intelligent principle called nous with its implications of divine justice and harmony, also called Providence. The Stoics adopted this model of the cosmos into their worldview, and from there it spread to medieval Christianity and eventually the Enlightenment where it manifested as theism and natural theology.

Cosmology has slightly different philosophical and scientific nuances. In philosophy, cosmology refers to the origin (cosmogony) and structure of the universe and encompasses portions of ontology or Being. Broadly considered it includes theories of space and time, contingency, necessity, and limitations and formal laws of the world and the origin of Evil. The philosopher correlates the principles of available science with inductive logic comparing the consequences with empirical facts and metaphysical truth. The value of this form of cosmology is to provide a framework for natural events, to define the limits of universe, and to uncover a means to transcend empirical reality.1 As an example, the biblical description of the universe implies a specific origin (not an eternal universe) by a Creator from nothing, thus justifying belief in an extra-cosmic existence and reality.

Alternatively, modern or scientific cosmology is a joint effort of the observational astronomer and the theoretical physicist to model the physical universe as a whole while omitting inductive or speculative philosophy. Resulting hypotheses are tested by additional confirmatory observations. The philosophical questions then center around methodological and epistemological concerns that are unavoidable in the unique system of the universe itself defiant of the experimental method.2  For this site our interest is in ethical implications for humanity, especially as they apply to the individual imposed by scientific cosmology. We pick up there next time.

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1Runes, Dagobert D., Dictionary of Philosophy. Philosophical Library, New York, 1960, page 68-69.

2Edwards, Paul (editor), The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. & The Free Press, 1972.   Volume 2, page 238.

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COSMIC VIRTUE – PART XI – THE USE OF SCIENCE (continued)

Last time we saw how science can become a mechanism of evil in three of the six general categories of human-caused evil, namely immaturity, accident, and error or poor judgement. Today we pick up the other three starting with human weakness. Weakness in this context includes intemperance, rashness, negligence, or cowardice. A gross example is the Chernobyl disaster which occurred in 1986 when a routine safety test was conducted 10 hours late, hence using an unprepared operating staff. The result was an avoidable explosion in the reactor core, 30 deaths, radiation exposure to the local population, and the need for an exclusion zone that forced the evacuation of 117,000 people.2

The fifth category is selfishness where a timely example is ransomware, computer viruses or worms developed to threaten a victim’s data or block access unless a ransom is paid. Whenever technology advances, there is likely to be the opportunity for unethical persons to commit theft, extortion, or other crimes. Last is the malicious use of science which hardly requires examples – consider poisonous gas or Nazi doctors. It is likely most science can be deployed intentionally for evil purposes by the imagination of the depraved.

This leaves the troublesome issue of whether science and more importantly technology are a net good or a net evil in the general sense. Contemporary scientific advances are occurring so rapidly and so permeate our lives that there is room to question whether the term ‘progress’ even applies. Does a cell phone in every hand lead to better quality of life? Do robotics threaten human employment and thus dignity? Can we really know whether gene modification is safe and cloning desirable? Is human freedom and privacy threatened by cameras on every corner and satellites monitoring all of planet earth? These questions and many others of this type are impossible to answer in a brief blog, but the principles we should follow are the same as in other areas of ethics. Two main rules apply: (1) there should be a net benefit over harm and (2) the individual should never be treated as a means, only as an end. A careful ethical analysis at the level of the individual and of society offer our only hope to remain agents of good in our ever changing world.

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2Wikipedia, Chernobyl disaster..

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COSMIC VIRTUE – PART XI – THE USE OF SCIENCE

“All our lauded technological progress – our very civilization – is like the axe in the hand of the pathological criminial.” – Albert Einstein.

So far in our analysis of the virtuous approach to science, we have looked at the ethics of the scientist in revealing the truths of the world and universe and at the ethical acceptance of this knowledge by the non-scientist especially in distinguishing valid science from pseudoscience. Today we arrive at the more perplexing dimension of the ethics involved in the use of science.

Clearly the compelling desire to know the truth of reality is a feature of human excellence or virtue. Moreover, many scientific discoveries offer tremendous benefits to our species in the production of food, the creation of shelter and creature comforts, reductions in suffering, maintenance of health and extension of lifespan. For the most part when science is developed and applied consistent with these aims in mind, the science is unquestionably a human good. Because purpose of this kind underpins science, I think it is unnecessary to belabor its virtuous use.

Instead it seems to me the more substantive issue which warrants exploring relates to the evil effects and uses of science. By ‘evil effects’ I mean unintended or collateral evils that occur as a result of or in spite of a benevolent use of science. An example is automobile engineering which permits greater mobility at the expense of environmental smog. Contrast this with ‘evil use’ which refers to employing scientific knowledge for intentional harm to others or to Nature. The archetypical example is the atomic bomb which required sophisticated research and design for the eventual purpose of killing hundreds of thousands of people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In my essays, Causes of Evil,1 I identified six broad categories underlying evils of human origin – immaturity, accident, error, weakness, selfishness, and malice. Science of course is not an originator of evil, rather a tool by which these six forms of evil materialize. Let’s consider them in turn in specific relation to science. Immaturity I noted is responsible for mostly minor evil at the level of the individual, but in the arena of science, is more serious. Our immaturity as a species has allowed us to ignore the environmental impacts of modern technology – thus the industrial revolution and population growth now threaten climate change and an irreversible decline of other species of life. Equally ominous is our adolescent concept of nationalism which has been used to justify nuclear arsenals capable of extinction of humanity itself.

Accidental evil effects of the use of science vary in their magnitude. On the low end are reversible side effects of drugs given to promote health. At the other end of the spectrum is evil that came from the advances in 16th and 17th century nautical science – transoceanic travel followed with the unintended transfer of small pox to indigenous peoples in the Western Hemisphere, decimating their populations. Evils due to erroneous understandings or judgments based on science include the faulty use of intelligence testing in justifying racial discrimination and the historical treatment of homosexuality as a disease.

(continued next post)

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1See posts this site dated 1/25/19 and 1/28/19.

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COSMIC VIRTUE – PART X – PSEUDOSCIENCE

“Science is not a body of facts…science is a method for deciding whether what we choose to believe has a basis in the laws of nature or not.” – Marcia McNutt, Geophysicist.1

 

In the last part we investigated the virtuous approach to science by the lay person. We look now at the corollary – the misguided path of pseudoscience. Given the difficult process of a reasoned analysis of scientific observations and experiments, it should come as no surprise that misunderstandings occur by the less scientifically literate and that intentional deceptions are accepted by the unwary. Thus a creation museum can unabashedly depict the coexistence of dinosaurs and humans when basic school textbooks demonstrate how preposterous that idea is.

In his book, The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan argues for the value of true science over the dangers of superstition and ignorance. He quotes Edmund Way Teale, “It is morally as bad not to care whether a thing is true or not, so long as it makes you feel good, as it is not to care how you got you money as long as you have got it.”2 Sagan goes on to say “it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion no matter how satisfying and reassuring.”3 Pseudoscience, such as belief in UFOs, telepathy, and communication with the dead are often presented as following the methods of science, when in reality, they are contrived to appeal to our emotional needs. Sagan notes a linkage where pseudoscience is “embraced in exact proportion as real science is misunderstood.”4 Throughout his book he reiterates the dangers of pseudoscience and scientific ignorance in reducing health and life expectancy, waste of resources, danger to the Earth, even as threats to personal freedom.

J. Bronowski, in his book, Magic, Science, and Civilization offers another viewpoint. Science developed during the Renaissance once people ceased to believe in magic, which he defines as “the belief in a mysterious second logic of events which is different from the everyday logic of nature.”5 Modern pseudoscience is a form of magic whose proponents “try to command the world by some formula which is other than the truth.” But society cannot go backward; “it was an irreversible step in the cultural evolution of man.”6 In the end, Bronowski argues, magic and pseudoscience are wrong if what we seek is a “unitary sense of the human situation.” Only science offers a basis for a cultural environment where “the only plan we follow is the great unbounded, ethical plan of a set of values by which we direct our actions.”7 p. 88

In closing, true science, although more difficult, is the ethical position the lay person must adopt, while pseudoscience and superstition are evils that diminish our well-being, freedom, and society, and the course of humanity in fulfilling its role in the unfolding of the Universe. The meaning of our lives is lessened on multiple levels by a careless attitude towards science.

This brings us to the question of the ethical use of science, which is the subject of the next blog.

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1Quoted in National Geographic, March 2015.

2Sagan, Carl, The Demon-Haunted World. Random House, New York, 1995. ISBN 0-394-53512-X, page 12.

3Ibid.

4Ibid., page 15.

5Bronowski, J., Magic, Science, and Civilization. Columbia University Press, New York, 1978. ISBN 0-231-04484-4, inside cover.

6Ibid., page 2.

7Ibid., page 88.

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COSMIC VIRTUE – PART XI – THE COMMITMENT TO SCIENCE (continued)

Having investigated what makes for virtue in the method of science last time, we move now to what makes for a virtuous attitude towards science by the lay person. The first philosopher who expounded on the modern scientific method was Francis Bacon, who in 1620 published his Novum Organum (in contradistinction to Aristotle’s Organum). In this work he identified four false ideas and methods which had handicapped human scientific progress: (1) Idols of the Tribe – emotional factors such as the human ideal of celestial bodies moving in circles, (2) Idols of the Cave – individual prejudices, (3) Idols of the Market Place – the loose use of language such as attributions of events to ‘fortune,’ and (4) Idols of the Theatre – philosophical speculation and dogmas, such as religion. Bacon predicted with uncanny accuracy that human progress and knowledge would rapidly advance only through a new approach of controlled observation and experimentation, tabulation, and inductive generalization – the very foundations of modern science.4

Nonetheless even today society seems to have a split personality with respect to science: utter reliance on its incredible usefulness on one side (such as the technology inside a cell phones or a microwave oven) and undue skepticism on the other (for example regarding evolution or climate change). Many people trust science only when confronted with the tangible; thus few doubt the value of aspirin or acetaminophen in relieving symptoms of influenza, but a large minority refuse the flu shot.

Joel Achenbach suggests the trouble is the human mind’s difficulty digesting randomness where our brains seek patterns which often can be deceptive. The same thing happens with scientists looking for specific outcomes or measurements, a type of error called ‘confirmation bias.’ We are also affected by our peers whose acceptance is transformed into emotions driving beliefs. Thus even scientifically literate persons tend to use their superior scientific knowledge to reinforce their beliefs rather than to test them. Intuitive error is a key factor as Dr. Andrew Shtulman has shown with studies on students advanced in science who he notes take longer to answer well known questions that counter intuition (for example, they answer more quickly that the moon orbits the earth than the earth orbits the sun).5

Scientists themselves are a factor in the problem. On the one hand their ardent political or even scientific advocacy tends to undermine their appearance of objectivity. On the other hand, frankly some experts express opinions under the rubric of science when there is insufficient data or experimental confirmation to back up their statements. Virtue regarding science for the lay person then is an attitude of objectivity in assessing scientific materials coupled with abstention from denial or disregard of unexpected, undesirable, or inconvenient evidence. It is a calculus based on a personal review of scientific data, studies, and methods and a careful judgment of the experts on whose opinion one relies.

Next time we will look at the other pitfall for the lay person– ‘pseudoscience.’ Join me then.

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4Magill, Frank, Masterpieces of World Philosophy in Summary Form. Harper & Row Publishers, 1961, pages 373-386.

5Achenbach, Joel, The Age of Disbelief in National Geographic, March 2015, Volume 227 No. 3, pages 30-47.

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COSMIC VIRTUE – PART XI – THE COMMITMENT TO SCIENCE

“The scientific Weltanschauung…asserts that there is no other source of knowledge of the universe, but the intellectual manipulation of carefully verified observations, in fact, what is called research, and that no knowledge can be obtained from revelation, intuition, or inspiration.” – Sigmund Freud, New Introductory Lectures of Psycho-Analysis.1

To begin, it is worth stating, human excellence (the classic definition of virtue) is perhaps reflected best in humanity’s greatest discovery – the methods of science. If Socrates is correct that virtue is synonymous with (or even just strongly dependent on) knowledge, then our most reliable knowledge, science, must underpin much virtue. Thus there are two components of a virtue of science: first the integrity of the scientist and second the attitude of the lay person to science.

Paul Sears reviews nicely what he calls “memoranda” or general principles of the scientist: (1) the wish to be a scientist with its heavy reliance on intuition and aesthetic impulse, (2) faith in the consistency of the universe, (3) a code of testing and continuously verifying phenomena of interest, (4) desire to probe beyond the limits of the senses with induction, deduction, and inference, and (5) willingness (at times) to attack complex problems in advance of knowing all the details. I would add to these (6) scrupulous accuracy and honesty in recording and reporting, (7) open-mindedness (to contrary or contradictory data and theories), and (8) responsible sharing of one’s results and discoveries with peers and society.

Two famous examples of scientific fraud illustrate the potential danger of scientific deception. Piltdown man, a forged fossil ‘found’ in 1912 was proposed as a 500,000 year old ‘missing link between humans and apes. It took 41 years before experts were able to demonstrate that the specimen had parts from three different species, the skull of a medieval human, the jaw and molars of an orangutan or a chimpanzee. An amateur archeologist, Charles Dawson, likely perpetrated the hoax with immeasurable harm to the course of physical anthropology.2

The second example is a 1998 study published in the highly reputable medical journal, The Lancet, by Andrew Wakefield purportedly showing a link between the MMR vaccine and autism, with data falsified for his own personal financial gain. The journal retracted the study after a detailed investigation revealed fraud, but child vaccination rates fell in Britain and elsewhere with resulting measles outbreaks that continue to this day.3

(continued next post)

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1Freud, Sigmund, New Introductory Lectures of Psycho-Analysis.. Encyclopaedia Britanica, 1952. The Great Books, Volume 54, page 874.

2Wikipedia, Piltdown Man.

3Wikipedia, MMR Vaccine and Autism.

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COSMIC VIRTUE – PART X – SCIENCE – OVERVIEW

Of course, scientists have been told to be socially responsible. Of course, I think society should be scientifically responsible as well.” – Sydney Brenner, Nobel Laureate in Medicine, 2002.

 

In this section, we have been exploring virtue, the first of four critical features of a meaningful life. Virtue manifests at five levels: oneself, others, society in general, the cosmic, and the ultimate. We have reached the area of cosmic virtue which I divide into two domains – Nature and Science. We have just completed analysis of the two subdivisions of Nature, animals and the physical environment. Now we will delve into the less tangible cosmic realm – science – especially physics and cosmology which study the smallest and largest aspects of physical reality. My goal in the coming essays is to define virtue or ‘human excellence’ in regards to science and the cosmos.

Virtue at this level seems to fall into four general categories. First one must investigate the methods and data of science in sufficient detail to accept the model in general and specific conclusions so derived. In other words, skepticism is permissible in the search for truth, but not as an excuse for denial of reasonable and generally accepted deductions. Second one must challenge and reject ‘pseudoscience.’ For example, astrology appears scientific, but is in fact completely speculative while astronomy is based on advanced tools and careful data collection. Third is the ethical use of science; this ultimate tool of good can easily be manipulated to serve dubious or evil purposes. Consider nuclear physics which can serve the potential good of an alternative form of energy or be used to create nuclear weapons which can kill millions. Last is the immersing of oneself in the cosmos itself – recognizing the place one occupies within it, the unfolding trajectory of the universe, and its ultimate meaning.

The following posts will examine in more detail these four categories starting with the appropriate attitude to scientific inquiry and conclusions.

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COSMIC VIRTUE & NATURE – PART IX – SYNTHESIS ON ENVIRONMENT (final)

We continue here specific guidelines of virtue on segments of the environment .

LAND

“The physicochemical conditions prevailing on the crust of the Earth are ideally suited – and perhaps uniquely so – for the emergence and maintenance of life.”6 However the picture is complex as organisms are both transformed by the environment and transform it, a fact particularly applicable to humans and our civilized spaces. What makes humans unique is our unfortunate tendency to sacrifice environmental quality for short-term rewards. But this does not make us immune to the powerful governing influence the environment exerts on our character and lives. Most ancient people empirically determined that human well-being depends on “ways of life in harmony with the natural world.”7 One noteworthy example is the oldest known Chinese medical text of the Yellow Emperor which states, “Live in accordance with the laws of the seasons.”7

There are four basic subtopics within the physical environment.

Soil. Humans are responsible for soil degradation, erosion, and toxic waste. There are many well-established and practical means to reverse soil deterioration including composting, use of natural fertilizers, avoidance of pesticides and herbicides, and sustainable agriculture. The virtuous person will be an agent for soil preservation and protection through exemplary conduct.

Non-fuel Minerals. Minerals are vital to industrialized societies, but are a finite resource. The mining and processing of minerals is destructive to terrains and contributes to air and water pollution. Thus recycling and self-control in purchase of finished goods are critical ethical measures the individual must consider in the interest of ecological ends.

Energy sources. Coal, oil, and natural gas are the results of millions of years of geological forces on organic materials. These irreplaceable sources of energy must be conserved as possible for future human needs and because too rapid use likely is a factor in climate change. Virtue involves increasing renewable energy use and avoidance of waste.

Territory. Man’s late arrival to the history of Earth tells us of the immense organization which preceded us, the transformation of organic and organic materials by various forms of life, and the interdependence of various species in a seamless web of life. We know for example that predators inhabit specific ranges and that differing species work different components of the bounty of living things leading to a natural ‘steady state.’8 Terrains as varied as desert, rain forest, and prairie are spaces where these steady states arise and sources of natural beauty that belong to all life present and future. Virtue entails curtailing the growth of human space when they threaten endangered species habitat and irreplaceable aesthetic landscapes.

In closing, the bar is high when we come to virtue in the setting of the environment, perhaps higher than any of us can hope to reach. Still a meaningful life can be poisoned by cosmic guilt should we neglect reasonable actions which safeguard our home planet, Mother Earth.

Next time we look at the last component of cosmic virtue – our approach to science and the universe itself.

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6Dubos, René, Environment in Wiener, Philip P. (editor), Dictionary of the History of Ideas Volume II, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1973. ISBN 684-16423-X, page 121.

7Ibid., page 122.

8Sears, Paul, B., Life and the World It Lives In, in Haydn, Hiram and Saunders, Betsy (editors), The American Scholar Reader, New York Atheneum Publishers, New York, 1960. Pages 228-235.

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COSMIC VIRTUE & NATURE – PART IX – SYNTHESIS ON ENVIRONMENT (continued)

We come now to more specific guidelines on features of the environment.

ATMOSPHERE

“The atmosphere is that dynamic sea of air that bathes all living things and affects their survival.”2 It has two vital layers: the troposphere with its vital balance of oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and water vapor; and the stratosphere with its protective layer of ozone.3 Add to this the feature of temperature where a change of a few degrees (as is occurring due to the ‘greenhouse effect’) has a profound effect on living things. Human influence includes ‘Brown Haze’ (as opposed to natural “Blue Haze” and ‘Gray Haze’) or air pollution – noxious gas and particles resulting from industrialization, that obstruct sunlight, coat rain droplets, and are inhaled by animals.4 Changes in atmosphere can be due to natural phenomena such as volcano eruptions and natural forest fires, but in general natural changes occur at a slow geologic pace which allows animal and plant evolutionary adaptation. Human effects occur more rapidly and do not permit gradual adjustments by living things.

Virtue here focuses on the axiom that diversity of life is a good, thus we must protect nature’s diversity by limiting our contribution to these changes (i.e. purchasing electrical vehicles and avoiding fluorocarbon products known to be major factors in the greenhouse effect and depletion of the ozone layer) and supporting social policy that protects the atmosphere.

WATER

“That we live on land is, in the grander scheme of things, best regarded as an anomaly or even an eccentricity- albeit with sound evolutionary justification. The story of life is, if we retain a true sense of proportion, a story of life at sea.”5. Life began in water, and cannot exist without it and even today perhaps 90% of living things live in water.

Salt Water: The most important issue is overfishing which has led to a 90% reduction in some edible predatory fish like cod and tuna and forced commercial fisheries to “fish down the food chain”.  Some previously abundant species are now endangered. Humans have become the apex predator of the ocean. Meanwhile tropical coral reefs around the world are being depleted by runoff from terrestrial farming, deforestation, pollution, climate change, and dynamiting.

Fresh Water: Only 3% of all the water on Earth is fresh water of which 77% is frozen in the polar ice caps. Here is a dual problem: habitat reduction for fresh water species and danger to humans from unclean and falling water supplies. Increasing human demand is depleting vital ground water and causing rivers such as the Rio Grande and Colorado to nearly dry up. Fresh water was once considered an unlimited resource, but population growth and livestock and crop needs threaten the supply while sold and toxic wastes jeopardize water safety.

The virtuous course for us as individuals is water conservation (e.g. not running a faucet while brushing teeth) and personal responsibility for contaminants (choice of laundry detergent or weed killers for example). Lists of practical measures one can take are available on a simple Google search. In addition each of us must support appropriate social policy even when that entails sacrifice.

(further continued)

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2Schaefer, Vincent J. and Day, John A., Atmosphere (Peterson Field Guides). Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston and New York, 1981. ISBN 0-395-97631-6, page vii.

3Ibid., page 1.

4Ibid., pages 5-9.

5Quote by Philip Ball in his Biography of Water. See Ellis, Richard, Aquagenesis: The Origin and Evolution of Life at Sea.Viking (Penguin Group), New York, 2001. ISBN 0-670-03023-6. Page 1.

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